Doublespeak on freedom & democracy

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The Taliban is being criticised by the Western and the Indian media because they do not honour the international values of individual freedom and democracy. Undoubtedly, the Taliban behaved cruelly in the past towards their opponents and against women and continue to do so today.

The Taliban is being criticised by the Western and the Indian media because they do not honour the international values of individual freedom and democracy. Undoubtedly, the Taliban behaved cruelly in the past towards their opponents and against women and continue to do so today.

On the other hand, a 2020 report of Edelman Trust of the United States says that 90 per cent of Chinese people have trust in their non-democratic government. In comparison, 81 per cent people in India and only 39 per cent in the United States had trust in their democratic governments. Another study done by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance at the Harvard University said that 61 per cent of the Chinese people considered their local governance to be kind towards the ordinary people in 2011. This increased to 74 per cent in 2016. It is clear that people are more satisfied with their non-democratic government – in this case, at least. Furthermore, US allies like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and US opponents like North Korea and China do not honour these values. Therefore, we need to examine whether honouring these values is the only path to people's welfare? There is no gainsaying that the purpose of individual freedom and democracy is people's welfare.

The doublespeak of the US becomes clear when we examine the individual freedoms relating to the patents acts under the World Trade Organisation. It is clear that the purpose of personal freedom is to be able to secure increasing incomes and economic welfare. One way of securing economic welfare is to use new technologies. The welfare of a homemaker is increased by using a pressure cooker instead of an open pan. Such technological innovation and improvement in people's welfare have been taking place from centuries—without patents being given. The printing press was innovated about 500 years ago for which no patents was granted. That technology was copied freely and people secured their welfare by printing papers and books in larger numbers.

The pace of new innovations did not stop due to the absence of patent protection, however. The powerloom, steam engine and telephone were invented in due course of time (although limited patents were granted on them in certain countries). Fast forward to 1995. The patent protection was expanded and made globally applicable under the leadership of the US in the World Trade Organisation. The freedom of people to copy innovations and make additional improvements was curtailed. People were restricted from securing their welfare by copying technologies. On the other hand, the freedom of the innovator to charge high price for her invention was protected. In this way the value of "individual freedom" was made to operate against public welfare.

Indeed, it is argued that the patents protection enables the innovators to invest in research and development of new technologies that lead to welfare of the people. The jury is out on this matter. That said, it cannot be assumed that the individual will be benefitted more by restricting her freedom to copy innovations. The value of individual freedom stands on its head. Instead of allowing freedom to copy and attaining welfare in a straightforward manner; the West has restricted freedom on the ground that it would lead to people's welfare in future.

Another aspect of individual freedom is that of movement. The United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 13.1 says "Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state." In other words, the international value regarding freedom of movement is limited to national boundaries. The so-called "international" value has cleverly been made "national." It is clear that the "international values" of freedom do not actually provide freedom to the individual to copy new technologies and to move from one country to another. These are but a smokescreen for promoting the economic interests of the industrial countries.

Another alleged international value is that of democracy. Here too there is a difference of democracy within and democracy without. About a decade ago Samuel P Huntington wrote in an article in Newsweek that people in the Muslim countries are hostile to the United States "in part as a result of Western imperialism and domination of the Muslim world for much of the 20th century." In another article, Christopher Dickey pointed out that dictators and emirs in the Arab world friendly to Washington moved to stifle dissent as they were sure that America cared more about its geo-political interests than about upholding democracy. He goes on to quote a Saudi royal telling the Americans: "Do not wish for democracy. If there is democracy in the Arab world, every country would be against you." Remember also that the US had intervened against the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which was fine. But, then, the US handed the country back to the ruling non-democratic Emir rather than to a democratically elected government.

The permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council being restricted to China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and United States can in no way be considered democratic and consistent with this international value. Wherefrom do these five countries derive the democratic right to decide the fate of countries like Kuwait and Iraq?

These examples indicate that the US promotes the rights of freedom and democracy only to the extent that they serve its economic interests. The "international community" led by the US has no hesitation whatsoever in jettisoning the same values when they are pitted against their commercial interests.

My argument is not against individual freedom and democracy. I think this grand experiment of humanity has not attained finality as of now. On the one hand we can see great advancement of humanity by science and technology developed by Western countries. On the other hand, people of non-democratic China appear to stand behind their leaders with greater dedication than the people of the US. Countries like Afghanistan, China, Cuba, North Korea, Russia and Venezuela and other countries have not accepted these international values, yet they have successfully challenged the might of freedom – and democracy of the US. Therefore, we should not mindlessly assume that the freedom and democracy is the only path to peoples' welfare; and those not conforming to these values are in some way anti-people. We must apply our minds dispassionately as to why the people of non-democratic China are more satisfied with their government than the people of democratic United States and India.

(The author is former Professor of Economics at IIM, Bengaluru)

(The opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of The Hans India)

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